Senate Democrats embrace Chuck Schumer's media tactics
By MANU RAJU | 1/6/11
Democrats in the Senate have long been envious about Sen. Chuck Schumer’s ability to grab media attention on even the most innocuous local issues.
Under a plan conceived by the aggressive New Yorker and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic leaders are building a new messaging machine for the entire 53-member Democratic Caucus that replicates Schumer’s tactics in driving national and regional news. The idea is to identify hot-button issues early, frame them in a favorable light for the party and allow Democratic senators to relentlessly drive home the point through press briefings, conference calls, newspaper op-eds and local interviews.
“There will be a far more aggressive, more proactive, more rapid response than we’ve seen in the past,” said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
What makes the approach different is that Schumer wants to place heavy emphasis on rebuilding regional and local press coverage, circumventing Washington’s media while trying to generate positive news coverage for Democratic senators at home — particularly for the 23 caucus members who face reelection in 2012.
Schumer is preparing to name a top aide from upstate New York, Max Young, to head the regional press operation, and his staff will help highlight national issues with a local spin that Democratic senators can tout in their home states. Democrats may also latch onto lower-profile issues with a consumer-oriented angle in order to generate local coverage.
Schumer has long had a flair for finding issues that buzz on Associated Press wires and generate positive nightly news coverage — such as recent efforts to target the alleged misuse of Transportation Security Administration body scanners and to ban caffeinated alcoholic drinks, like the beverage Four Loko. He’s also famous for calling Sunday news conferences in New York, knowing that he’ll get major coverage on what is usually a slow news day.
Democratic leaders anticipate rank-and-file senators may take a more aggressive approach to generate media coverage ahead of a tough electoral environment.
Indeed, Schumer and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida sent a letter Wednesday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, urging him to issue a new rule requiring troops who work within range of toxic open-air burn pits to wear respirator masks. The issue comes in the wake of the death of a veteran from Long Island, N.Y., who relocated to Florida.
The push is certain to generate news coverage for both the Florida incumbent who’s up for reelection in 2012 and Schumer himself.
“You’ll see a much ... earlier [time] frame, but at the same time, we’re going to talk about these issues and how they connect to real people and how they have real impacts,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said. “Not just here we are — on Wednesday, we’ll have the debate, Thursday we’ll have the debate and Friday we’ll be doing something else.”
Republicans say Democrats are missing the point — that they lost the election because of the unpopularity of their agenda, not because of their messaging problems.
“My hope would be that, with a more evenly balanced Senate, we spend more time looking for consensus and less time taking partisan shots,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who spearheads the Senate GOP’s message operation.